Meeting With Nobel Laureates

USF Department of Physics graduate student Jasmine Oliver reviews PET scan images at the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center & Research Institute. 
Photo by Aimee Blodgett | USF News

Graduate student Jasmine Oliver, in the USF-Moffitt medical physics program, is headed to Germany for prestigious annual Lindau gathering.

By Barbara Melendez

     USF News

TAMPA, Fla. (June 25, 2014) – Completely absorbed in images taken by a PET scanner, a soft-spoken and mild-mannered USF graduate student finds a combination of excitement and wonder. Between USF’s classrooms and labs and the offices and imaging facilities at H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center & Research Institute, Jasmine Oliver is in the midst of life in medical physics research and loving it.

It was into this world, where she was quietly going about her life in the College of Arts & Sciences Applied Physics program when she responded to an email gauging interest in the 64th Annual Lindau Physics Nobel Laureate Meeting. Thinking nothing more about it she was surprised to find herself in the running to take a giant step beyond her normal routine.

Department of Physics Associate Professor Garrett Matthews nominated Oliver to apply for a spot at the prestigious gathering taking place this summer from June 29 to July 4. A group of 30 to 40 Nobel Laureates in physiology and medicine along with another nearly 600 aspiring young scientists from 80 countries take part each year.

“I thought it was a great opportunity,” Oliver said. “I’ve never been out of the country before and it was in my field, so I thought, why not try for it?”

Making it through the first selection round was satisfying enough, but, she said, “I never thought that I would actually be going.”

When she received the good news that she made it through round two and would become the fourth USF student to be so honored, she was thrilled. Oliver’s name is being added to those of Aaron Landerville, Joseph Fogarty and Evan LaFalce who were selected for the 62nd Lindau Physics Nobel Laureate Meeting in 2012.

Science classes didn’t particularly interest the Bloomindale High School graduate and according to her, she, “worked hard in science classes but was more interested in extracurricular activities like band and track.” Oliver discovered her love of science during her undergraduate years at South Carolina State University beginning with a course she never expected to enjoy – physics.

“I had a great professor, Dr. Daniel Smith, who introduced me to the field of medical physics. I always knew I wanted to do something in medicine, but it was after hearing his presentation at summer orientation that I made the decision to focus on this area.”

That’s when she became interested in radiation therapy and diagnostic imaging as a way to treat patients, especially cancer patients. The university’s competitive applied physics program, a joint endeavor with the Moffitt Cancer Center (MCC), drew her to USF and into a new realm for her – research. Her mission, like MCC’s, is to “contribute to the prevention and cure of cancer.”

She explained, “The work that I do at Moffitt contributed to my decision to do research. I’m working under the direction of some of the leading radiation oncologists and medical physicists.

“Going to Germany means that I’ll be interacting, talking and discussing research with still more experts – and legends – working at the cutting edge of the latest technological trends.” She added, “This means getting into an entirely new network.”

Oliver’s goal is to gain certification in medical physics from the American Board of Radiology and work as a board certified medical physicist at Florida teaching hospital. Right now she’s working on texture analysis of PET scanned images of tumors. Positron emission tomography, a type of nuclear medicine imaging, produces three-dimensional images in color of the inner workings of the human body. Interpreting those images and working with physicians to find the best ways to remove tumors will be her life’s work.

We are seeking to increase the uses and extractable information of PET images in radiation treatment planning,” she said. “It’s exciting, challenging and rewarding.”

“I enjoy learning and understanding how things work as well as making connections. Biology, chemistry and physics are all connected and it’s really fascinating to understand how these things are working together. It blows my mind how so much is happening on the atomic level – it’s a world most people don’t know or think about.”

Music occupies the other half of Oliver’s brain. She is a classical pianist and sings in her church choir.

One of six children, four much older, Oliver grew up primarily with her younger sister, Jacquelyn. Though her father has a degree in biology with a chemistry minor and her mother teaches at Hillsborough Community College and also happens to be a USF alumna with a degree in chemical engineering, they didn’t insist on careers in science for their two children.

They “nourished and pushed us and allowed us to grow, to dream, to be whatever we wanted to be and today they’re “excited and proud” of their daughter.

“My parents have always been my biggest supporters and have pushed me to be rigorous in my studies,” she said but spreads the credit around for her success. “I also have to acknowledge my current mentors and advisors, Dr. Matthews and Mr. Bernard Batson from USF and from Moffitt Dr. Geoffrey Zhang, my mentor from the Department of Radiation Oncology, Dr. Robert Gillies from the Department of Cancer Imaging and Metabolism, and there’s also the director of the medical physics program at Moffitt, Dr. Eduardo G. Moros. They have played key roles in my growth and development in research during my time as a graduate student at USF.”

As it comes closer to the time to leave for Germany, Oliver is growing more excited.

“The researchers that I want to meet and talk with are Prof. Dr. Erwin Neher and Prof. Dr. Walter Kuhn,” she said. Neher shared the 1991 Nobel Prize in physiology/medicine with Bert Sakmann for their discoveries on single ion channels in cells and Kuhn won for chemistry with John Popl in 1998 for his development of the density-functional theory.

Of Neher she said, “His background in physics and his contributions in the measurement of the electrical flow in the cell membrane interest me. His work is a far cry from my research but I think what he has done is fascinating.”

And of Kohn, she said, “He’s known for his simplified equations to calculate electron interactions between themselves and atomic nuclei. His technique was applied computationally for simplicity. I took a computational physics course in 2013 in which we used molecular dynamics to model a carbon nanotube. I’m very excited to meet the 91 year old legend and discuss his work!”

It won’t be all work in the historic Bavarian town next week with its location on the eastern side of Lake Constance near where the border of Germany, Austria and Switzerland meet.

“This experience will shape the next era of my life. I will have the opportunity to expand my worldview, meet and converse with the most notable researchers in physiology and medicine, meet incredible young researchers and enjoy the beautiful island of Lindau. I am filled with hope, excitement, peace, and gratitude.”

Always modest, Oliver sees herself as part of a long continuum that has made everything in her life possible.

“I have not received this honor on my own. On the contrary, I share this honor with my family, friends, colleagues, professors and advisors. I also think of my ancestors, on whose shoulders I stand, whose sacrifices, strength and perseverance inspire me and keep me grounded.”

Barbara Melendez can be reached at 813-974-4563